by Jackie Wright
San Francisco – The San Francisco Cancer Initiative (SF-CAN) and the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC) hosted “What Does Menthol Have to Do with It? Everything! Tobacco and Social Injustice Community Forum.” The forum with African American leaders and community members took place this month at the historic African American Arts and Culture Complex.
Its purpose was to educate the broader community about the devastating impact that menthol and flavored tobacco products have had on the African American community and to empower the community to take action to deal with the number one killer of Black people.
The forum, which was exciting and informative in its own right, received a big boost from friends at the Truth Initiative, who allowed a sneak preview of their latest hard-hitting national media campaign #STOPROFILING: Tobacco is a social justice issue. The campaign, which had its official premiere at this year’s Grammys, validates one of AATCLC’s key messages: “The tobacco industry is the biggest and deadliest profiler of the Black community.”
“I came away inspired to take action,” said Dr. Maxine Hickman, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women San Francisco Chapter. “Dr. Phillip Gardiner, Dr. Valerie Yerger and Carol McGruder made powerful presentations with data to back it up. The most devastating truth is that for decades Blacks have been systematically and strategically targeted by tobacco companies, which have scientifically engineered tobacco products to be more addictive. You can’t hear that kind of truth and not take action,” added Dr. Hickman.
The forum’s purpose was to educate the broader community about the devastating impact that menthol and flavored tobacco products have had on the African American community and to empower the community to take action to deal with the number one killer of Black people.
Dr. Yerger, a health policy researcher from the University of California at San Francisco, talked about how nicotine accumulates in tissues containing melanin. “Melanin is what gives Black people their skin color; because Blacks tend to have higher levels of melanin than whites, Blacks are more likely to hold more nicotine in their bodies than whites. For decades, the tobacco industry has known about this relationship between nicotine and melanin.”
She also discussed the difficulty of getting the message out about the lies perpetrated by Big Tobacco that keep people in bondage and eventually kill them. “It’s confusing to the community when we get mixed messages from celebrity community leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton,” said Dr. Yerger. “Sharpton has been sponsored by Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) to host forums in Black communities purporting that the elimination of menthol from cigarettes would cause criminalization of the Black community.” RAI is the parent company of Reynolds Tobacco Company, which manufactures Newport cigarettes, the largest selling menthol cigarette in the U.S. market.
“It’s simply not true that restricting the sale of menthol cigarettes and other flavored tobacco products would lead to the criminalization of our community. Regulating these tobacco products is a key component in preventing the annual deaths of 45,000 Black people. The tobacco industry is not trying to protect our community. They are afraid of losing the $3.3 billion that Blacks spend with them every year,” added AATCLC Co-Chair Carol McGruder.
Mattie Scott, executive director of Healing for Our Families and Our Nation and a nationally recognized violence prevention advocate, added: “The bullet is the last thing that takes our children’s lives. But the battle is on all fronts from unhealthy food, to alcohol and tobacco on just about every corner – you don’t see any liquor stores in Pacific Heights, but look at our neighborhoods – death traps all around.” Her presence and comments were particularly meaningful because she lost her son to gun violence.
Statistics show that more than 80 percent of African American smokers smoke menthol-flavored cigarettes. “Our research documents and exposes the truth that Big Tobacco companies strategically targeted African Americans for over 50 years to entice them to smoke menthol cigarettes,” said Dr. Gardiner, co-chair of AATCLC.
“The tobacco industry’s shameful actions are equivalent to genocide. It’s a serious community and social injustice issue. It was shameful when our federal government in 2009 chose to ban all fruity and candy flavored cigarettes, but chose to exempt menthol cigarettes. And despite all the evidence that led our government to declare that the removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit the public health, our government still has yet to act.”
Author, poet and spoken word artist Kwesi “The Dreamer” presented one of his insightful poems about the challenges facing young African Americans. Kwesi’s performance bolstered plans underway to host a contest for young people to create poems, spoken word and creative art exposing how the tobacco industry targeting and the resulting tobacco-related diseases kill more Blacks than officer-involved shootings, murders, AIDS, car accident injuries and all other non-related cancers COMBINED.
“The tobacco industry’s shameful actions are equivalent to genocide. It’s a serious community and social injustice issue.”
To find out how you can help save lives or to get more information to help your loved ones and your community overcome the health challenges posed by menthol-flavored cigarettes, visit www.savingblacklives.org.
SF CAN is a partnership between the University of California, San Francisco, and the city’s health systems, government and community leaders to reduce the incidence and impact of cancer in San Francisco.
The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC), a nonprofit consortium of organizations dedicated to research, community collaboration and public engagement, is working to stop the preventable deaths of African Americans due to the consumption of menthol-flavored cigarettes engineered by the tobacco companies to addict Black people and others including Asian, Latino and LGBTQ populations.